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About this book

Originally published under the title History of Political Thought, this innovative text provides a broad-ranging thematic introduction to the Western tradition of political thought. It reviews the contributions of a wide range of theorists to the key themes of the ends of politics, the location, exercise and justification for challenging or obeying political authority. The second edition has been revised and updated throughout with more extended coverage of key thinkers and updated coverage of key contemporary debates.

Table of Contents

The Ends of Politics

Frontmatter

Chapter 1. Politics and Order

Abstract
Political theorists have produced three general sets of arguments about the relationship between order and politics. First, the issue of order has been related to the need for coercive regulatory agencies to repress behaviour that threatens the stability of society and jeopardizes beneficial human interaction. Second, order has been treated in more positive terms that identify it as a basis from which human beings can reap the material, moral and psychological benefits of cooperation. Finally, one can identify a perspective on order that has played a prominent role in Marxist and anarchist political theory. Writers in these traditions view the state as an instrument of order, but they argue that it is necessary only because tensions between individuals and classes have resulted from oppressive and exploitative tendencies within modern societies. Marxists and anarchists believe that once the social and political structures of society have been transformed, a beneficial order based upon voluntary cooperation will emerge. This condition will be social, but it will not be political because it will lack both the state and the forms of coercive regulation that are central to politics.
John Morrow

Chapter 2. Politics and Virtue

Abstract
This chapter will focus on the ideas of a number of important thinkers who identified politics and the most central of political institutions — the state — with the pursuit of ultimate moral values. For these thinkers, politics itself, and the organization of political institutions, played a crucial role in the practice of the virtue, and contributed thereby to the pursuit of human perfection. In other words, politics was seen as an activity that was centrally concerned with the promotion of human goodness. Some of the writers discussed in this chapter argued that a properly ordered state would directly promote the moral goodness of its members, while others saw political authority as a means of facilitating the pursuit of moral goodness by members of the state. In both cases, however, the focus on virtue did not mean that other ends — for example, happiness and freedom — were ignored. As we shall see, a number of important political philosophers argued that virtue and freedom are closely related, and it was generally held that true happiness is dependent upon a proper appreciation of moral goodness. In the conceptions of politics discussed in this chapter, however, values such as freedom or happiness were treated in relation to the pursuit of virtue: that is, they were valued because of their connection with moral goodness.
John Morrow

Chapter 3. Politics and Freedom

Abstract
Although a number of historically significant political thinkers regard freedom as a primary political value, treatments of this topic vary. One set of differences hinges on the status of freedom: in some cases it is seen as being a good in itself, while in others it appears as a necessary condition for the realization of other values relating to human well-being. Discussions of the political implications of freedom are also affected by different understandings of its context. Thus while some thinkers regard freedom as a social attribute, others see it in individualistic terms. These differences are apparent in the theories dealt with in this chapter, but they all share the assumption that the nature, scope and purpose of political authority must be understood in relation to the priority to be accorded to particular conceptions of human freedom.
John Morrow

Chapter 4. Politics, Happiness and Welfare

Abstract
This chapter discusses a number of political theories that start from the assumption that the primary purpose of politics is to promote human interests, happiness or welfare. In particular they regard government as an agency with a distinctive and general responsibility for ensuring that those who are subject to it enjoy as many of life’s advantages as possible. While some of these theorists argue that this responsibility entails an active and positive role for government in, for example, distributing material goods, this is not a necessary feature of this perspective on politics. As we shall see, in some cases it is thought that the most important contribution that government can make to general welfare is to guarantee a framework of human interaction in which individuals can pursue their own conception of their own best interests.
John Morrow

The Location of Political Authority: Who Should Rule?

Frontmatter

Chapter 5. Rule by a Single Person

Abstract
The claim that political authority should be located in the hands of a single person has appeared in a variety of forms. The prevalence of democracy in the modern world should not blind us to the fact that the idea of single-person rule has had a dominant place in the history of Western political thought. Indeed, the modern preference for popular government is an exception to a pattern of political thinking that has generally been hostile to democracy. While this hostility has been a common feature of defences of monarchy, that is, rule by a single person who is endowed with the sanctity and trappings of ‘kingship’, it has been shared to some degree by those promoting non-monarchical conceptions of rule by ‘the one’. In particular, proponents of single-person rule share a common belief in the need for a ruler to provide a sense of unity in the state and to give direction to its activities. They also assume that it is possible to identify a person who possesses the distinct and relevant attributes that are necessary to attain these ends. This chapter will discuss ancient, early modern and modern accounts of government by ‘the one’, some of which present defences of monarchy. It will also examine modern, non-monarchical accounts of single-person rule. Some of these theories regard the ruler as the only really significant political actor in the state, but others focus on the need for a supreme ruler within systems where other actors also play important political roles.
John Morrow

Chapter 6. The Rule of the Few

Abstract
In the previous chapter it was noted that some accounts of monarchy set that form of single-person rule in the context of a system of social and political authority in which the ‘aristocracy’ plays an important role. Theorists of ‘mixed government’ argue that a combination of monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements provides a way of ensuring that political power is exercised properly (see pp. 227ff). In both these cases the ‘aristocracy’ — or, to use Aristotle’s phrase, ‘the rule of the few who are the best’ — does not possess supreme power. A consideration of the role of the aristocracy in a mixed government will be presented later in this book, but since a more restricted conception of ‘aristocracy’ as a central aspect of monarchy has occupied an important place in the history of Western political thought, it will be considered in some detail in the present chapter. It is important to note, however, that Aristotle’s definition indicates that the idea of rule by the select few can, and indeed has, been given a more literal interpretation; that is, one can identify a number of significant statements about the desirability of rule by the few that are not related to monarchical conceptions of government and do not mean rule by those of ‘noble’ birth. These ideas played an important role in ancient political thought, and they have also had currency in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
John Morrow

Chapter 7. The Rule of the Many

Abstract
As democracy of one kind or another is a feature of the modern world, it is easy to overlook the fact that arguments about the positive political significance of ‘the many’ have had a chequered career. Aristotle used the term ‘democracy’ to refer to a form of government that is necessarily unjust because it involves the exercise of political power by ordinary members of the population in their own, exclusive interests. Both he and Plato associated democracy with lawless and unstable rule and many of the unfavourable connotations that they attached to this form of government were accepted by their successors. Despite this persistent hostility, the history of political thought has been punctuated by the appearance of arguments that have sought to show that democratic (or ‘popular’) government is both just and beneficial. In arguing their case, proponents of rule by the many have had to show that exclusive claims made on behalf of the ‘one’ and the ‘few’ are incompatible with the effective pursuit of the ends of politics. It should be noted, however, that while arguments in favour of popular rule have often made a case for giving the many a significant formal role in politics, they have not always promoted exclusive control of the state by ‘the people’.
John Morrow

The Exercise of Political Authority

Frontmatter

Chapter 8. The Sanctions of ‘Nature’

Abstract
The idea that it is possible to identify standards that correspond to fundamental facts about human beings and may thus be described as ‘natural’ has played an important role in a range of theories that have implications for the regulation of political authority. In order to understand the regulatory role of an appeal to ‘nature’, it is necessary to distinguish theories that rely on the idea of ‘natural law’ or ‘the law(s) of nature’ from those that focus on ‘natural rights’. Theories of natural law identify a structure of expectations and norms that are not themselves the product of human intention or human will. These norms serve to legitimate human action and to justify the exercise of political authority (Finnis, 1980, p. 23). Natural law is held to be ‘natural’ in two related senses. In the first place, it is so fundamental to human life that its binding force is a matter of moral necessity rather than choice: to recognize that there is such a thing as a ‘law of nature’ and to fail to abide by it is to fly in the face of a standard that is intrinsic to humanity. Second, and as a consequence of this, it is claimed that adherence to natural law is supremely appropriate for human beings.
John Morrow

Chapter 9. Mixed Government, Balanced Constitutions and the Separation of Powers

Abstract
This chapter will examine a number of theories that seek to regulate the exercise of power by constitutional arrangements that ensure those occupying important political offices are constrained from acting wrongly and are encouraged to act rightly. The theorists discussed here almost invariably assume that assigning exclusive power to particular individuals, groups or classes carries with it the risk of tyranny, or the use of power for the benefit of those who hold it rather than in the interests of the community. This concern forms an important part of a range of theories containing very different specifications of the ends of politics and the location of power. However, to the concern about avoiding bad government is often added the problem of how government may be made a more effective force for the realization of fundamental goals. In other words, mixed government, balanced constitutions and the separation of powers are seen as ways of making the exercise of political power more effective, as well as avoiding its abuse.
John Morrow

Chapter 10. Absolute Government

Abstract
The theories discussed in the previous two chapters provide the conceptual and, to some degree, historical starting point for theories of absolute government. But while accounts of absolute government often incorporate ideas derived from natural law theory and stress the obligation of rulers to uphold natural law, they set these ideas in a framework that is distinguished by the supremacy of a sovereign power that is both absolute and unitary. Sovereigns hold all the agencies of government in their hands; they are the unquestioned and unquestionable source of law, and they claim the right to direct the lives of all those who are subject to them. To the extent that natural law directs and constrains the exercise of power, it only does so because sovereigns impose these obligations upon themselves. Their actions may be subject to divine regulation, but sovereigns cannot be regulated, judged or punished by those over whom they rule.
John Morrow

Chapter 11. The Rule of Law and Rule-Bound Orders

Abstract
The development of theories of absolute government involved a radical break with a long tradition of political thinking that sought to restrain the actions of governors by systems of law. Law defined the nature of the environment in which rulers acted and formed the framework within which they exercised power. Both the ideas on natural law and the theories of mixed constitutions that have been discussed in previous chapters served this general function, the first by identifying an objective standard to which human law has to conform, the second by stipulating arrangements of offices and/or powers that effectively regulate the conduct of particular political actors. But while there is some common ground between these ways of regulating the exercise of political power and those discussed in this chapter, the theories considered here are distinctive because they identify human law itself as the source of regulation.
John Morrow

Challenging Political Authority

Frontmatter

Chapter 12. Resisting Unjust Rulers

Abstract
Resistance theories address four sets of issues bearing on the legitimization of challenges to established authority. They justify resistance by reference to the rationale of government, they specify the conditions under which it may take place, they stipulate the form it may take and they identify the person or persons entitled to undertake it. The refutation of claims that resistance is never justified is central to this enterprise, and so too is the need to identify the circumstances in which there is no obligation to obey a ruler. The theorists discussed below offer a range of views about who may resist: some restrict this right to limited sections of the population, while others argue that in certain circumstances the right to resist is possessed by all or most of the population.
John Morrow

Chapter 13. Revolutionary Political Thought

Abstract
There is a significant difference between the theories of resistance discussed in the last chapter and the types of revolutionary political thinking that will be dealt with in this one. Resistance theories deny legitimacy to rulers who act improperly, but they do not deny that subjects have an obligation to obey their rulers when they act in accordance with the letter or spirit of what are seen as legitimate systems of government. In contrast revolutionary thinkers argue that subjects are under no obligation to accept the authority of those whose claim to rule is derived from an unjust political structure. The purpose of revolutionary political thought is to identify the weaknesses of existing political structures, and to show that these weaknesses can only be avoided by establishing a radically different social and political order. In these cases, resistance is a challenge to the state. Many theories of resistance have a constitutional basis, so that claims to resist are part of the structure of a state. The extra-legal nature of revolutionary change, and the fact that revolutions are intended to bring about a fundamental alteration to the structure of the state and the distribution of political power within the community, means that revolutionary theory usually assumes the need for a violent challenge to an existing political system and to those who wield power within it.
John Morrow

Chapter 14. Theories of Civil Disobedience and Non-Violent Resistance to Political Authority

Abstract
The ideas discussed in this chapter are frequently grouped together as theories of ‘civil disobedience’. The distinctive character of actions that are promoted and justified by ideas of civil disobedience is captured in their designation as forms of ‘principled’ disobedience. This term draws attention to the fact that acts of disobedience are directed by a desire to resist political injustice and to produce a change in the exercise of political authority, not — as is the case with conventional law breaking — to gain some personal advantage (Harris, 1989). ‘Civil disobedience’ is related to, but must be distinguished from, the idea of ‘passive resistance’, which played a role in medieval political theory. ‘Passive resistance’ refers to a refusal to obey unjust commands; it generally precludes challenges to rulers, and does not involve a concerted attempt to change their conduct or modify the structures within which they operate. Although the term ‘civil disobedience’ will be used here, it should be noted that one important proponent of non-violent resistance regarded the idea of civil disobedience as too negative. As we shall see, Mahatma Gandhi preferred to describe his doctrine as one of ‘civil resistance’. He did so in order to signal his desire for a positive transformation of politics so that political authority would once again become legitimate.
John Morrow

Conclusion: Some Contemporary Themes

Abstract
In accordance with the historical focus of this book, the preceding chapters have not ventured beyond the middle decades of the twentieth century. To have done so would have launched us into a complex and rapidly expanding body of literature that could not be canvassed adequately within the space available. Much of this literature considers issues that are peculiar to the contemporary world and it does so from perspectives that differ radically from those which have played significant roles in the history of Western political thought. Given the considerations about the contextual specificity of political thinking that were raised in the introductory chapter these developments are not surprising. At the same time, however, as in earlier periods, it is possible to identify a degree of commonality between some of the ideas considered here and those that have appeared in a rich variety of forms over the course of Western history. This book will conclude by offering some brief sketches of the relationship between some of the concerns that appear in the writings of late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century political theorists. A consideration of these concerns provides a way of indicating the degrees of continuity and discontinuity that are a feature of the history of Western political thought and the extent to which the refocusing of political theory involves a conscious engagement with the works of earlier political thinkers. The past may be a foreign country but it provides an ongoing source of interest and stimulation to those who are citizens of other ages.
John Morrow
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